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  • jeffreywenhao

Always the bridesmaid, never the bride

I'm sure you have heard this phrase before. And you would certainly imagine it must have originated with an unfortunate lady who supporting many friends on their big day, without being the main star herself. And after reading the paragraph above you would have also immediately realised that the origins of "Always the bridesmaid, never the bride" has nothing to do with marriage or weddings.

This phrase actually originated from an advertisement from, you would guess this, Listerine. Yes the mouthwash.

In the 1920s, oral health was really not seen to be very important. In fact people had to be persuaded to brush their teeth. Naturally, as an oral-hygiene product, Listerine was not doing well. How can they get they improve their sales? Well like good companies, Listerine looked at the market and what others were doing. And they found that companies targeting women through advertising campaigns premised on image and shame had pretty spectacular results. (For examples, women who did not go manicures were portrayed to be perceived as washerwomen. Greying was portrayed to cost women their jobs.) So Listerine followed suit. They moved away from oral health and hygiene and targeted women where it really hurt - their love lives.

Listerine introduced the term - “Halitosis” - or what we now call bad breath. And they pinned halitosis to women's failure at romance. Check out this ad above: "Edna's case was a really pathetic one. Like every woman, her primary ambition was to marry. Most of the girls of her set were married — or about to be. Yet no one possessed more grace or charm or loveliness than she. And as her birthdays crept towards that tragic thirty-mark, marriage seemed farther from her life than ever. She was often a bridesmaid but never a bride."

And why? "That's the insidious thing about Halitosis. You, yourself, rarely know you have it. And even your best friends won't tell you."

In 1923, there was the ad on Eleanor: "Most of the girls of her set were married...but not Eleanor. It was beginning to look, too, as if she never would be. True, men were attracted to her, but their interest quickly turned to indifference. Poor girl! She hadn't the remotest idea why they dropped her so quickly..."

And thereafter, they introduce the miracle product - Listerine laid out how it killed germs but more importantly also killed bad breath. In fact the punchline at the bottom, "Listerine Antiseptic stops any Bad Breath 4 times better than any toothpaste." Again, notice the emphasis.

And that you should, "Every night...before every date, make it a habit to use Listerine."

With the marketing premised not on moral suasion, or on oral health, but a tool that was the difference between an attractive, "marriable" woman and a constant bridesmaid, Listerine's sales shot through the roof. It rose from around $100,000 in 1921 to over $4 million in 1927, proving threatening women's domestic bliss worked.

(you can read more about Listerine's marketing campaign here

We often think that a good reason or a good "why" is the main factor for us to do something. Well we've seen that this is not the case. Like the example of Frederick the Great and the potatoes or Dan Ariely and the medication for his liver infection, it was not sense and logic that shaped behaviour for Listerine. If they had gone on and on about oral health, Listerine might not have survived as a company till today, and people would probably not be using mouthwash. We tend to focus a lot on the rigour of the decision-making process. In other words, how can we convince people (or indeed ourselves) why it is the right reason for us to do something. But what if we achieved that "something" with a "wrong reason". What if we lost weight simply to impress someone else rather than for health reasons? Health should surely be the "right reason" - without good health we would suffer greatly and we might not even be alive to impress anyone. But as long as you lose weight and you are able to keep it off, does it really matter what reason it was for? Could you have lost the same weight if I had just nagged at you to do so for the "right reason" - aka health?

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